International Pressure Builds for Indian Ocean Early Warning Tsunami System

Nancy-Amelia Collins

International pressure built Tuesday for an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system mirroring a system being used for the Pacific. Some scientists say such a system might have prevented some of the deaths in Sunday's massive earthquake and tidal waves, which may top 40,000.

Australia on Tuesday proposed setting up a system to warn of potential tsunamis in the Indian Ocean. Japanese officials say they will propose a similar system at a disaster management conference next month.

Several other nations, including some hit by the tidal waves on Sunday, have indicated they would participate in a warning network.

Tens of thousands of people in at least 10 countries have died since a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hit near Indonesia's Sumatra Island on Sunday, and set a series of tsunamis slamming across the Indian Ocean.

In Thailand, where more than 2,000 may have died, Foreign Minister Sihasak Phuangketkeow says a warning system is a good idea.

"Definitely, in view of the destruction that has taken place, we believe that it would be in the interest of all countries to see how we can work together to put in place such an early warning system," he said. "The details would require the experts to get together and discuss how such a system can be put in place."

The Thai government has been criticized by residents and vacationers who complained they were given no warning of the impending tidal waves.

But tsunamis, while relatively common in the Pacific Ocean, are extremely rare in the Indian Ocean. The last significant one to hit the region was probably in 1883 after a volcano erupted in Indonesia.

In the U.S. state of Hawaii, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the International Tsunami Information Center both detected Sunday's earthquake.

But neither institute could warn the threatened nations, which were not part of the warning network.

Experts say if a warning system for the Indian Ocean had been in place, lives might have been saved.

Jan Egeland, the United Nations disaster relief coordinator, warns that installing a warning system will be a huge undertaking.

"The problem with the tsunamis is that it takes hours or minutes for this wall of water to come," said Jan Egeland. "There's just very little time. This is something we have to look into. I think it would be a massive undertaking to have a full-fledged tsunami warning system that would really be effective in many of these places."

Much of the affected region is poor and lacks the infrastructure for such a system.

The Pacific warning system issues public warnings via radio and television, coastal sirens, and even mobile phone text messages in some countries.

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